The Nature Of Biblical Separation
By: Joseph Howell and Daniel Lewis
At the very core of the biblical concept of holiness is the idea of separation. To be holy is to be separate. God is separate from the human level in power and position, ethical perfection and gracious action. Separation is simply defined as “an act or instance of dividing” or “a segregation according to differences.” An object or person is deemed separate when it is “set apart” from the whole. In this we see the two-fold nature of biblical separation: separation is both “from” certain things and also “to” certain things.
God, for example, is separated from human limitation. He is removed from moral corruption, distinguished from mortal indecision, and high above human desires, goals and aspirations. God, by His very nature, is holy, separate, and set apart from the human realm. This does not deny the worth of the human domain, nor demand God’s absence from history, for the same God that is separated “from” the human level is also separated “to” certain tasks within history. Separation is not isolation. The God Who is holy (separated) from limitation is also holy in acting to save man. God is separated “to” certain tasks which only He can accomplish. He alone creates; He alone elects; He alone calls; He alone justifies; He alone will glorify. God’s holiness-separation is revealed in His unique accomplishments in history as well as His superiority over history.
The Christian, as the recipient of God’s gift of holiness, also partakes in the two-fold nature of separation. Paul emphatically states that the Christian is separate “from” the dominance of sin, “from” the over-powering flesh-ethic which controls unregenerate men, and “from” the despair produced by the unattainable standard of the law.
Separation From Sin, The Flesh And The Law
The believer is “united with Christ”, and therefore, a clear-cut separation from sin as a lifestyle occurs. Should the Christian continue in sin? Paul forcefully replies, “No!”
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin: how can we live in it any longer? or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Jesus was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” Romans
The Christian lifestyle, by definition, involves separation from the “anything goes” mentality which dominates sinful men.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit…. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the spirit. For to be carnally minded (that is,”in the flesh”) is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Romans 8:1,5,6
“In the flesh” and “in the Spirit” are contrasting terms of ethical motivation in Paul’s vocabulary. To “walk in the flesh” is to be self-ruled with human standards and guidelines shaping ethical decisions. But to “walk in the spirit” refers to the reception of a new ethical motivation, the inner working of the Holy Spirit which points to Christ’s example and words in the moment of ethical decision and temptation. The Christian is therefore released from the attitudes and values that had previously turned him farther and farther away from Christ, by the new and “alien work” (Luther) of the Holy Spirit which comes to nurture new and living values around the character of Christ. Paul states, “…now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ (in context, the nature, attitudes, and values of Christ), he is none of his” (Romans 8:9b).
The Christian is also set apart from the condemnation of the law by the free gift of forgiveness. The moral demand of God based on his own moral perfection confronts sinful man with an impossible goal. Man, by his very finite nature, could never in-and-of himself reach this level of ethical existence. The law, instead of being a joy to man, became a roadblock that always pointed him back to the fact of his sinfulness. That which should have been good became a burden to man.
“What shall we say then, is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law… For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died, And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.” Romans 7:7a, 9-11
The impossibility of the law’s demand left man in despair without the hope of deliverance. But the free gift of forgiveness, available through Christ’s life and ministry, gave man that “impossible possibility” (Reinhold Niebuhr) and the freedom to rise above the despair brought by the law.
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us… (Galatians 3:13).” Paul sees the law as limited in its function, able to point out man’s sin, yet only able to point beyond itself to the true source of salvation, God’s forgiveness in Christ. The law becomes man’s “schoolmaster”, instructing him of his sins and pointing him on to Christ’s salvation (Galatians 3:24). The Christian should, therefore, be separated from self-accusation, guilt and ethical turmoil. Paul informs us that in spite of our own assessment of personal guilt, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ.”
Separation to Mission
The separation of the Christian does not end on this note. As well as being “separated from” certain things, the Christian is also “separated to” certain things. The church as a whole (the corporate body of believers) is set apart from society; not in an isolationist sense, but in the sense of being called to a unique task. The Christian is, above all else, separated to involvement in the lives of others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has well
described Christ as “the man for others.” The holiness of God did not keep him isolated from man, but rather led him into the midst of men, sinful men, the “lost,” the “sick”, the publicans, the prostitutes, and sinners. God, in His holiness, is more than “high and lifted up”(Isaiah 6:1), He is also bent low in the form of a servant as he becomes obedient to death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:5-9). Both aspects of God are expressions of His holiness. As recipients of God’s gift of holiness, the church and individual Christians are called to share in Christ’s mission, or in the words of Jesus, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (St. John 20:21).
The call of Isaiah into prophetic ministry well illustrates the two-fold impact (separation “from” and “to”) in confronting God’s holiness. In the year of King Uzziah’s death (no doubt a traumatic experience to the young Isaiah who had only known the security and prosperity of the lengthy reign of Uzziah), Isaiah receives a vision while in the Jerusalem temple (Isaiah 6:1-13). He is transported to the heavenly court where all the heavenly beings are conferring with God about the fate of sinful Judah, Isaiah’s home. Isaiah arrives only to hear the final verdict, “Guilty”; all that remains is the assigning of a specific messenger to communicate this sentence to Judah. In this new and unusual setting, Isaiah is overwhelmed by God’s holiness. As the cherubim sing, “Holy, holy, holy,” Isaiah is awed and keenly aware of his limitation before a limitless God. Isaiah also experiences moral condemnation, “Woe unto me for I am a man of unclean lips.” Yet the holiness of God awakened more than a personal condemnation by pointing him beyond himself to an awareness of the corporate body of sinful Judah; for Isaiah continues, “…and I live among a people of unclean lips.” God, in His holiness, supervises the purging of Isaiah.
Immediately upon receiving God’s salvation, Isaiah volunteers to be the messenger to the sinful people. Contrary to popular notions, this experience of divine cleansing did not leave Isaiah with a desire to be isolated from sinful men. Neither did Isaiah beg for a prolonging of the ecstatic moment. In response to the gift of holiness, Isaiah volunteers for mission. The profound effect of God’s holiness saved a man and then sent him headlong into involvement with others in a sinful world.
Christ, in like manner, was involved with men at all levels, not maintaining the somewhat superficial distinction of the spiritual and the physical, but ministering to both areas of need. Christ treated men as “wholes,” ministering to whatever needs might arise. He called for simple acts like feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and sharing a cold drink of water with a weary traveler (see Matthew 25:31-46). He called men to concrete expression of their supreme love for God by actions of love among men.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy
soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as
thyself.” Luke 10:27
Christ was involved, not isolated. Likewise, those sharing the mission of Christ will be involved, not isolated. The word “Church” is from the Greek “ekklesia” meaning the “called out ones”, not called out in a physical sense, but rather called out to minister and share Christ with others.
Any action of mission is an expression of the church’s holiness which is clearly derived from God’s holy mission of redemption. In Acts 13:1-5, the Holy Spirit spoke, “Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul for the work unto which I have called them.” Of Paul, the Spirit spoke, “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Of the church, Peter proclaims that it is a “chosen generation, a royal priesthood,” chosen for priestly action in leading others to Christ, not chosen to passive indifference or fearful isolation (I Peter 2:9).
The Old Testament gives the following sad, negative example of how holiness was confused with physical separation from society, resulting in apparent failure in the mission that God intended, The Babylonian exile destroyed many of the notions of pre-exilic theology (especially the notion of the eternal dwelling of God in the Jerusalem temple and the certain continuity of David’s dynasty). In light of this theological disruption (the exile), the Jews had to re-evaluate the central aspects of their faith. The prophets of the exile (Jeremiah and Ezekiel) explained the exile in terms of disobedience of God’s laws (more specifically, the breaking of the covenant of which the laws were expressions and stipulations). Also, special emphasis was placed on Judah’s involvement with other nations which led them into sin (see the parable of two prostitutes in Ezekiel 23, also compare Ezekiel 16 with Hosea’s prophecies). As the exile wore on, the Jews began to place great emphasis on strict obedience to the law in an attempt to right their previous wrong.
As the end of the exile drew near, the prophets began to preach that God would again restore Judah to Palestine. This emancipation from Babylonian rule was interpreted as the “second exodus”, similar to the exodus from Egypt in which Israel became a true nation. The prophets emphasized that Israel was once again at the point of direction-setting, just as in the former wilderness experience at Sinai. The original themes of God’s covenant were restated by the prophets in light of God’s soon deliverance. Judah was to return to Palestine to be the “true Israel” of God fulfilling all of God’s intentions. This is especially true concerning the mission of Israel to the nations. The writer in Exodus records God’s original commissioning of Israel at Sinai:
“Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and YE SHALL BE UNTO ME A KINGDOM OF PRIESTS, and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:4-6
God was now ready to lead Judah out of Babylon and back to her original mission: ministry to all men.
“And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations. And STRANGERS (i.e., foreigners) shall stand and feed your flocks, and SONS OF THE ALIEN shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers. But ye shall be named PRIESTS OF THE LORD: men shall call you the MINISTERS OF OUR GOD: and ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves.” Isaiah 61:4-6 Restored Judah was to be holy and involved in ministry to the nations.
When the restoration ultimately occurred and the Jews returned to Palestine, the struggling post-exilic community found themselves with twosome what contradictory challenges: the call to holy separation (lest true worship would again be compromised) and the call to world mission. Early post-exilic leadership often emphasized one of the two challenges without reference to the other. The result was confusion rather than meaningful balance. Ezra and Nehemiah attacked mixed marriages and refused to allow non-Jews to share in temple worship. The writer of the Chronicles emphasized ceremonial separation from foreigners. In contrast, the writer of the book of Jonah attacks Israel’s failure to evangelize. Drawing from a familiar story of previous centuries, the writer shows that restored Judah, like Jonah, received the call to share her faith with the nations, but had refused. This book warns against the fearful results of failing to complete God’s mission.
At the heart of Judah’s confusion was the underlying error that holy separation and world mission contradicted each other. These post-exilic Jews did not share Isaiah’s, Jesus’, or the Apostles’ understanding of holiness as separation from sin and yet involvement with sinful men. Judah made a “false dilemma” of these two issues (that is, the demand for a simple either/or choice between two issues, when in reality other solutions are possible). Restored Judah chose the route of holy isolation while forgetting the divine mission that gave her meaning. This attitude was best expressed by the Pharisees of Christ’s day who failed to see God’s redeeming action in Christ’s work due to their one-sided emphasis on physical separation. Offended, they asked, “How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners” (Mark 2:16)? Christ, with harsh words, reprimanded this attitude. Post-exilic Judah had the potential to be the “servant of God”, ministering to the whole world (see the “Servant songs” in Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-9, 50:4-9, 52:13–53:12). But by isolation, Judah failed and had to be replaced. God, finding none that would take up the cause, took the mission of salvation upon Himself in Christ, the true “Suffering Servant”, and transmitted that mission into a community of salvation, the church.
Christian holiness must share the dynamic range of God’s holiness. God has called us to be separate from some things, but set apart for other tasks. Our concrete actions in the world alone fulfill the commission of God. We are to share the gospel, the good news of salvation, deliverance, liberation, meaningfulness and hope. Our involvement is not in word only, but also in deed having its loots in God who loved so much He did something about it, something concrete among sinful men.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16
He did not withdraw for holiness’ sake, but he expressed holiness by coming to “seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). In Nazareth, He committed Himself to life ministry when He read,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath annointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised…” Luke 4:18.
Holiness is demonstrated in Christian mission!
(The above material was taken from the book “A Call To Holiness.”) Christian Information Network